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The Language of Gender Violence

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You could have heard a pin drop in Mead Chapel on Monday night as guest speaker Jackson Katz showed an audience of about 400 people—students, community members, faculty, and staff—how common language is perpetuating gender violence today.

Problems of gender violence, which include sexual violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse of children, and sexual harassment, are viewed by society as “women’s issues that some good men help out with,” rather than seen as men’s issues.

Men and masculinity “have been rendered invisible in much of the discourse” around gender violence, Katz said. This is not surprising since “dominant groups often go unchallenged in society, and their power and privilege goes unexamined.”

“[Gender violence issues] affect women at every level, but I am here to say that the very fact of just calling these issues ‘women’s issues’ is in itself part of the problem.”

Jackson Katz (c.) enjoyed dinner and conversation with students in Chellis House before his talk.

The guest speaker, who is an educator, author, filmmaker, and cultural theorist with a PhD from UCLA, offered powerful examples to support his argument that language reinforces social norms that place women in jeopardy today.

“The first problem with using the term ‘women’s issues’ when talking about gender violence is it gives men an excuse to not pay attention. A lot of men hear ‘women’s issues’ and they tend to tune it out and think, ‘Hey, I’m a guy,’ and they literally don’t get past the first sentence.”

Another way that people discuss gender violence is through the use of the passive voice.

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

“So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Next, Katz used a whiteboard on the platform at Mead Chapel (giving credit to author Julia Penelope for the exercise that followed) and wrote:

The first sentence, Katz explained, “is a good English sentence: a subject, a verb, and an object.” The second sentence is the first sentence written in the passive voice, and according to Katz “a whole lot has happened. The focus has shifted from John to Mary. John is now at the end of the sentence, which means that John is very close to dropping off the map of our psychic plane. So it’s not just bad writing to use the passive voice, it’s also political. And the political effect has been to shift the focus from John to Mary.”

In the third sentence John is gone. In the fourth, the term “battered” is substituted for “beaten,” and in the final sentence of the sequence “you can see that Mary has a new identity. She is now a battered woman and John is no longer part of the conversation.”

How language holds victims accountable, rather than their perpetrators, is demonstrated by the way the word “accuser” has supplanted the term “alleged victim.”

“This,” Katz stated, “is a very big shift in the conversation about sexual violence. People who come forward to allege that they have been sexually assaulted are now referred to routinely as ‘accusers.’ There’s a lot going on here with the use of this word. The public is generally positioned to identify sympathetically with the victims of sexual assault or other forms of abuse. So when you hear about a sexual assault you think, ‘That’s horrible. That’s too bad. Or that could have been me or someone I care about.’”

But using the term ‘accuser’ reverses the process, because it turns the victim into an accuser. “So we as a public are now positioned to identify sympathetically with him as the victim of her accusation, rather than with her as the victim of his alleged perpetration. This is subtle but deep, isn’t it? It’s another instance where victims are being told to sit down, shut up, and don’t come forward because if you come forward you are going to be an accuser, and then people are going to be questioning your motives…it’s just another way that we in society keep people from coming forward.”

The intensity of Katz’s one-hour presentation—one “aha moment” after another about society’s skewed language for the treatment of women—had his audience exhausted but inspired. But the creator of the Mentors in Violence Program, a gender-violence prevention system implemented by professional sports teams, NASCAR, and the U.S. Marine Corps, wasn’t finished yet.

Katz took four or five questions from the audience, answered each one thoroughly, and then screened a clip from his film “Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity,” and a segment from Byron Hurt’s documentary “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” Katz spoke pointedly about the obligation men have to model the respectful treatment of women. And he closed with a quote from Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator and activist, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

Postscript: In addition to his talk in Mead Chapel, Jackson Katz also conducted a day-long workshop for members of the community. His appearances at Middlebury were sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Office of the Dean of the College, Athletics Department, Parton Health and Counseling Center, Academic Enrichment Fund, WomenSafe, and the Addison Council Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.